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Edyta’s blog; The Dedalus Book of Slovak Literature

I have always enjoyed anthologies and collections of stories and poetry because of the variety of different voices, subjects and styles. Sometimes there are stories that you knew already so you relive the emotions and landscapes that you remember and cherish, and it feels comforting to know that you have them on your shelves. But it happens almost every time that along with your favourites, there are short stories which you have not known and you are curious to read. There is also a different scenario. Namely, sometimes an anthology can serve as an introduction to a certain theme, genre or a country.
The Dedalus Book of Slovak Literature, which was an inspiration for this entry, turned out to be such an introduction for me. There is a wide range of subject matter and styles that take you into the heart of Slovakia.
The first story in the anthology is ‘Tinker’s Christmas’ written by Martin Kukučín (1860-1928), who is one of the most important Slovak authors of his period. It is a realistic portrayal of life in Slovakia in the late nineteenth century during the Hungarisation of the country. Through the eyes of Durko, the reader observes an individual’s struggles during the turbulent times before WW1. As Durko comes back home, he does not recognise the dramatic changes that have taken place and tries to make sense of the new situation. Very different is ‘Edita’s Eye’ by Gejza Vámoš (1901-1956). Aside from his literary achievements, Vámoš was a doctor and worked in China during WW11. ‘Edita’s Eye’ is a somewhat grotesque story whose narrator ponders on creation and existence. Edita is a strange character and the narrative is ambiguous so that the reader is never quite certain what the author intends so you feel you should read it again. A total change of feel and atmosphere comes with Vladimir Balla’s story ‘Pregnancy’. Born in 1967, Balla is an economist and a journalist. ‘Pregnancy’ takes place in a non-specified location or time. The characters seem to be bored with themselves as the reader first encounters them. They treat one another disrespectfully although they seem to have a close bond as well. There are sudden turns of action although they all seem absurd and we are left with the feeling of uncertainty as the story provides us with one last surprise at the end.
These three stories are my favourite ones in the anthology. The Dedalus Book of Slovak Literature is an excellent introduction to the Slovak literary world and its concerns. It was a voyage of discovery for me during which, for me, unknown writers brought alive a country I knew nothing about. I am grateful to them for giving me a glimpse of Slovak history and culture.

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Edyta’s blog: Cambridge

Wordsworth was right when he wrote that Cambridge is a ‘fairy work of earth.’ To find out what he meant by these words you need to visit the city. For me Wordsworth’s words stand for charm that the city holds. Cambridge is peaceful but also a creative place. It is in part of England’s history and its past but it also very much a city of today and the future. You will find a moment of quiet in Christ’s Pieces where you can lie down or have lunch, sitting on the grass. When you make your way to the Fitzwilliam Museum or walk along Trinity Street, you will see people drawing or playing music. The historic buildings of the University of Cambridge, which is the second oldest university in the United Kingdom, will take your breath away.
Like Wordsworth, I was struck by the beauty of King’s College Chapel when I found myself on King’s Parade, having walked through the centre. And like the poet himself, I felt myself being drawn to the place with an inexplicable force. Indeed, I sat in front of the chapel for a long time, contemplating the beautiful structure. I, like any other student of English Literature, wished to see one of England’s most beautiful architectural achievements and the university at which some of my favourite poets studied. Although you can’t visit all of the colleges’ historic buildings, you can see most of the halls and chapels and spend time in the courtyards which were walked centuries before by some of the greatest English writers, from Christopher Marlowe to Lord Byron and more recently by E.M. Forster, C.S. Lewis and Sir Salman Rushdie. Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes met in Cambridge.
King’s College chapel is, without a doubt, the most stunning place in the city. Its history is long and interesting, suffice to say that it was Henry VI who began the building of the chapel and it was finished during Henry VIII’s reign. The structure’s Gothic vaulting, stained glass windows and meticulously designed royal symbols, such as fleur de lys and portcullis will make you want to look again and again so that you walk looking up all the time. Although all of the colleges are beautiful and worth seeing, for me it is the Fitzwilliam Museum which stays in my mind because of the grandeur of its facade and the beautiful marble interior and its fine art collection.
I understand Wordsworth’s infatuation with the city, its nature and streets. As I walk through yet another passage, lane or side street I discover new places, beautiful houses, another college. Cambridge makes one want to work and explore during the day and listen to the silence which seems to hover over the university colleges in the evening as the air gets chilly and the streets are almost empty.

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Edyta’s Blog; Reading something different and discovering Estonian Literature

If you are an avid reader and read a wide range of books and different authors and read the literary magazines and the literary pages of the newspapers, you might think that your perspective on literature is vast and you know more or less what is happening in the literary world. Who won the Booker Prize, who are the big authors authors of the moment and which novels are currently being adapted into films. However most of us tend to read books from very few different countries. I certainly do and feel because of this I have been missing out on countless different perspectives.
What brought about these reflections was reading The Dedalus Book of Estonian Literature, first published in 2011. I hadn’t read any Estonian literature before and I was entranced by many stories in the book. I would like to mention three. They demonstrate how your preconceptions about countries that you no little about can be wrong and how you can be entertained and surprised by unknown authors from a small linguistic area.
The first story which I found moving was ‘Bread’ by Eduard Vilde. The author lived at the turn of the twentieth century and his stories are considered to be classics in Estonia. ‘Bread’ is a bitter and moving short story about a man’s love and devotion. In the midst of a celebration, the reader’s attention is directed towards an individual’s troubles. Vilde’s story is told in a matter-of-fact manner and does not stir up strong emotions until the last sentence when you realise the character’s feelings and the author’s power to move his readers.
I could not omit an interesting fact about the figure of Vilde. As his name, undoubtedly, reminds one of the great Irish writer Oscar Wilde, an Estonian sculptor Tiiu Kirsipuu decided to design a sculpture of the two w/vildes and since its completion in 1999 it has been located in front of Eduard Vilde café in an Estonian city of Tartu. In 2004 Estonia joined the European Union and as a way to celebrate it, a copy of Kirsipuu’s sculpture was presented to Galway in Ireland.
The second story which drew my attention is a short story by Juhan Liiv, an Estonian poet and writer of the turn of the twentieth century. His house in the province of Tartu is now a museum open to those interested in the life of the famous Estonian poet and there is the Juhan Liiv Poetry Prize awarded every year. Despite the fact that Liiv’s story ‘On Lake Peipsi’ is only five pages long, it is a successful exploration of the human mind when one is faced with danger and of what people learn from their experiences.
Last but not least, the third story from the Dedalus anthology which I would like to recommend is Anton Hansen Tammsaare’s ‘Grandfather’s Death.’ The author is yet another writer who is considered to be one of Estonia’s classic authors. Like Vilde and Liiv, Tammsaare lived at the turn of the twentieth century and was recognised not only in Estonia but also in a few other countries as some of his works were translated into, among others, Latvian and French. For a few years until his death he lived in an apartment in Kadriorg and today the place is turned into Tammsaare Museum. In his short story ‘Grandfather’s Death’ which begins with the grandfather’s somewhat comical prediction about his own death, the author explores the theme of death through the eyes of a boy and gives the reader an eerie story which, like the other stories in the anthology, will linger in the mind long after the book has been read.

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Edyta’s blog: September

September has just begun. Nature is changing, the wind gets chilly and the holiday season is over. On the 22nd we will welcome autumn. Every month people are looking forward to see what the next few weeks are going to bring and the feeling of a new beginning appears as you flip the calendar sheet. I’ve decided to take a brief look at what we associate with September and what we can expect of it this year, particularly.
In the film You’ve Got Mail, the main male character Joe Fox narrates that the autumn always makes him want to buy things for school and there would be nothing peculiar about it had it not been for the fact that Joe is a man in his thirties who has no need for anything to do with school. Similarly, in his poem ‘September’ John Updike enumerates erasers, chalk and new books among the things which remind him of this month. The message, therefore, is there – the autumn is a time when the academic year begins and even if you’ve graduated a long time ago, you still associate September with school and reminisce about it a little bit.
As far as literary celebrations are concerned, September is a month awaited by Tolkien fans as the 22nd of September is dubbed Hobbit Day due to the birthday of Bilbo and Frodo Baggins. The celebration lasts more than one day, however, as the week which contains the joint Baggins birthday is frequently called Tolkien Week. There is one more connection between September and J.R.R. Tolkien as September 2 marks the forty-third anniversary of the author’s death.
If you look at current magazine covers or any news website you will notice that there are two cinema or TV releases which are most anticipated this month. The first is the second season of the popular drama Poldark while the other is Bridget Jones’s Baby, the third film about Bridget’s personal adventures. While both pieces are based on novels – Poldark was written by Winston Graham and published in 1945 whereas Bridget Jones’s Diary was written by Helen Fielding and published in 1996 – the third Bridget Jones film is not based on Fielding’s sequel.
For Dedalus September means two releases. The first is a new edition of Diego Marani’s New Finnish Grammar. Translated by Judith Landry, the novel is the first of Marani’s trilogy and it tells a story of a wounded soldier who, having lost his memory, is aided by a Finnish doctor who helps him recreate his identity. The second book from the trilogy, The Last of the Vostyachs, was published by Dedalus in 2012 while the third, The Interpreter, in January 2016.
The second Dedalus release this month is a Portugese classic written in 1888 by Eça de Queirós entitled The Maias. It was translated by Margaret Jull Costa and is one of the nine novels by Queiróz published by Dedalus. The piece tells a story of an aristocrat Carlos da Maia whose life is carefree and filled solely with pleasures until he meets Maria Eduarda with whom he falls in love. After that his life changes.
To sum up, as September begins and school starts, there are a few things to look forward to, be it the colourful leaves on a pavement or a new book.

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Edyta’s blog; Pfitz by Andrew Crumey

It rarely happens that I let myself be drawn into a story which teeters between reality and fantasy. I think that it is extremely difficult to write a story which contains elements of fantasy and which would encourage the reader to enter a world of imagination rather than make him or her laugh at the improbable inventions of the author. But recently I read a novel which, being highly improbable, was nothing but charming and gripping and it reminded me of fairy tales which we are told as children. Indeed, I thought that the novel is a fairy tale for grown ups.
The novel which I am talking about is Andrew Crumey’s Pfitz, released by Dedalus in 1995. It opens with an introduction of a Prince who wishes to be remembered as a creator of fantastic cities. As his beloved dies, he devotes all of his energy to the task he has appointed himself. The city is to be, however, a city which consists only on a map and it is only the first idea that the Prince has. There are more which are just as imaginative and which introduce another set of possibilities.
The resemblance with fairy tales is clear as the reader is introduced to a Prince, who is one of the most popular fairy tales characters. As for the place and time, we cannot place the story at a specific time or location as we are only vaguely informed that the Prince lived two centuries ago which reminds us of the ‘once upon a time’ opening sentence characteristic of tales by Perrault or Andersen.
As far as the form is concerned, Crumey used the Chinese box narration and as the first chapter ends, we meet new characters. There is an imaginative Schenck who is a cartographer and a mysterious Estrella, a biographer. Then another story-line unravels and we are introduced to the humorous adventures of Count Zelneck and his servant. There is romance and deceit. There is comedy and drama. The characters are highly identifiable and you cannot help but wish them well. From time to time I forgot that certain events take place in imaginary environment but I wanted to stay in those places for a little longer. I liked Andrew Crumey’s storytelling, his subtle merging of fantasy and reality and I liked that the plot flows smoothly. The novel has an ability to make you as impatient as you were as a child, to find out how the story ends.

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Edyta’s blog:A thought on the first sentence and David Madsen’s Memoirs of a Gnostic Dwarf

Anybody who has ever written a blog, a story for a creative writing class or a letter, knows the moment when the sheet of paper is lying in front of you, the pen is in your hand and you are eager to begin. You cannot wait to read the whole piece afterwards and hear what your friends and tutor will think about it. And so you’re sitting and you’re playing with the pen, thinking about the brilliant idea you have in your head. But after the first ten minutes you realise that you have absolutely no clue what to write first and as time is passing, you are starting to sweat a bit, remembering the tutor’s words about the importance of the first sentence. How it sets the mood. How it encourages the reader to keep reading when it is ambiguous, intelligent or witty. Or all in one, preferably.
You think about Dickens’s opening line for A Tale of Two Cities and about Austen’s first sentence about the commonly acknowledged truth from Pride and Prejudice and you wait for the spark of genius. When that does not arrive, you try to remember any tips you received during class; you hope to remember something. And here it is, Hemingway’s advice to write one true sentence. That’s it. But what does true mean? True to you or to all? Is it something that you are certain of, something which is a fact? At this point you are convinced that there is not a single thing that you know for a fact except that you are not doing very well at the moment.
When I read the reviews of Memoirs of a Gnostic Dwarf I noticed that what a few critics paid special attention to was the novel’s first sentence: ‘This morning His Holiness summoned me to read to him from St Augustine, while the physician applied unguents and salves to his suppurating arse.’ They praised it and no wonder as it is truly a great opening and one which makes everybody struggling to write jealous. It is witty, provocative and throws you into a world of excess and multidimensional characters. Madsen’s first line makes you ask numerous questions – Where is it? Who’s telling the story? What will happen next? – and offers endless possibilities.
However, as I kept reading, the story was revealing even more humour and more interesting scenes and characters. I thought that although I admire Madsen’s ability to open his novel in such a powerful way, the overall opinion of the story would not be as positive as it is and the novel wouldn’t be placed on The Guardian’s list of ‘1000 Novels To Read Before You Die’ had it not been for the following sentences and chapters. In other words, it seems to me that it is the general idea for the story which makes you appreciate the piece and which makes it an excellent work. Let us all – students, bloggers and writers – forget about the perfect beginning, write whatever comes into our minds and piece it together later. Perhaps that’s how Madsen did it.

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Edyta’s Blog; The Dark Domain

From time to time you find yourself reading a book discovered by chance. The book is in your hands and you start reading without having expectations of any sort as you know nothing about the story or the author. Some of these chance encounters vanish from your memory whereas others turn out to be pleasant surprises and you want to tell everybody about your discovery. Such was my reaction to Stefan Grabinski’s collection of short stories entitled The Dark Domain and here are a few reasons why you should read it.
Stefan Grabinski was born in 1887 in Kamionka Bużańska. He studied Polish literature at Lviv University. He is mostly known for his numerous short stories although he also wrote a few novels. As Miroslaw Lipinski, the translator of the stories, states in the introduction, Grabinski was never widely recognised in Poland as horror fiction wasn’t very popular in my country at the time. I hadn’t come across his works before. It is Grabinski’s gift for story telling and for his ability to juxtapose the mundane with the supernatural in a gentle way which makes reading him so rewarding. Although his stories bear many characteristics of both speculative and Gothic fiction, Grabinski does not frighten but instead unsettles the reader.
The collection The Dark Domain starts with a short story entitled ‘Fumes’ and from the beginning we are surrounded by powerful images of weather which set the mood of suffocation and danger as gusts of wind plough through everything in their path. In the midst of this turbulence there is a wanderer who is looking for a shelter and he finds it at a house of a peculiar host. What ensues is a story of ambiguous identities, sexuality and death. Indeed, these are the themes which permeate all Grabinski’s pieces in the collection. No wonder, as the author struggled with tuberculosis from the youngest age and witnessed the First World War. The vision of death was, therefore, present in his life and permeated his fiction to a great extent.
‘Fumes’ is the first short story of the collection which introduces us to Grabinski’s imagination and the next pieces are just as ambiguous, placing the author in the genre of Gothic as well as fantasy by which he was influenced. Like Faulkner in his ‘A Rose for Emily’ and Poe in his ‘The Fall of the House of Usher,’ the author sets his stories in realistic places and introduces supernatural phenomena within that mundane environment. Each of his stories is but a few pages long and in each of them Grabinski succeeds at depicting figures which are dead yet still alive (‘Szamota’s Mistress’), who have unusual abilities to play with elements (‘Vengeance of the Elementals’) or whose identity is questionable (‘Fumes’). There is typical for Gothic fiction atmosphere of gloom and suffocation and a few abandoned houses as well as the theme of ambiguous identity (‘Strabismus’). At the centre of each of the stories is the main – always male – protagonist, a vagabond, gravedigger or a gentleman who finds out that the boundary between reality and dream, life and death or pleasure and pain is elusive.
The multiplicity of characters and themes and the talent for telling stories are the two characteristics of Grabinski’s fiction which made me eager to read more. The collection The Dark Domain will appeal to everybody interested in the supernatural as well as Polish literature enthusiasts and for those who enjoy a gripping story which is difficult to forget after you’ve finished.
Few if any readers of The Dark Domain will disagree with Miroslaw Lipinski that Grabinski is ‘one of the great voices of the supernatural’.

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Reading Europe Blog: Now and at the Hour of our Death

Now and at the Hour of Our Death follows journalist Susana Moreira Marques as she attempts to report on a project of palliative home care in Trás-os-Montes, in the Planalto Mirandês. Susana writes about death in a way no journalist ever has and in a range of generic registers: travel notes, standard narrative, stream of consciousness, interviews, as well as what seem to be personal confessions. Rather than erase herself from the text, as most journalists would, she guides us through her impressions and transformation during her experience “at the end of the world” (or of Portugal) and of life.

At no point does Susana attempt to provide an objective account of her experience, nor does she presume to be able to extricate herself from the piece she is writing. This demonstrates a willingness to be part of the story that involves us, as readers, more deeply in it. Which is precisely the book’s strength: Now and at the Hour of Our Death, from the very beginning, from its very title, claims not to be about her or you or I or them, but about us. It is about now and about the hour of our death.

As Susana winds her way along the country roads of Trás-os-Montes, from household to household and family to family, we travel with her and come to understand, as she does (when she embraces Sara at the door of her house after a conversation full of tears and wine), both a fundamental and terrifying truth (one we go through life forgetting so that we can go through life): we think death happens to other people, that grieving and loss happen to other people, but we are other people.

Broken into three sections – ‘Travel Notes about Death’, ‘Portraits’ and ‘When You Return from the Journey no Sane Person Wants to Go On, You Will…’ – the first section of the book lays down a sort of philosophical and emotional groundwork that echoes subtly throughout the rest of the book.

‘Notes’ is made up of a series of vignettes. Susana herself admitted she didn’t quite know what to call them either, but the term vignette both captures the sense of a brief, evocative impression, as well as that of a portrait photograph whose edges fade into the background, which seems fitting since those people (or perhaps characters?) who populate Now and at the Hour of Our Death are inseparable from their setting. In short sections she calls her Survival Guide, Susana claims “Make people characters. Don’t stop crying over characters,” blurring, or questioning, the line between reality and fiction, between life and fiction. These vignettes don’t only serve to raise questions, but also to universalize the highly personal experiences in the second section, ‘Portraits’, where Susana gives an account of each person’s imminent death (or the deaths of their loved ones). When we witness Sara losing her father (or Paula dealing with her own illness, her own mortality), struggling over having lived far from him, we see it in our own lives, feel it in our own skin, because we are all either sons, daughters, husbands, wives, mothers or fathers and (both life and) death happens to us all.

Now and at the Hour of Our Death might seem like a requiem composed solely for those cancer patients in Trás-os-Montes – like the daguerreotypes Susana mentions towards the end of the book taken by photographers after a person’s death, their eyes still open. It is not only for Sara or Elisa or Paula or João and Maria that Susana writes this book, but for Trás-os-Montes itself, where a certain kind of love and living exists. It is a paean to a place, to “a land [that] seems to run on like time itself,” to a way of life indivisible from those who live in it. Life is spilling out of this end of the world, fading or trickling away, and with the death of these Joãos and Paulas, of Sara and Elisa’s father, of Maria’s husband, the shadows, slowly the houses, deserted, fall, and there will no longer be a village.

Now and at the Hour of Our Death is a beautiful work that sets out to be about death but ends up being about a whole way of life.

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British Library Blog for Crossing European Borders with Diego Marani’s ‘The Interpreter’

As in previous years, the British Library will host 2016’s European Literature Night on 11 May. As a taster, we look at a newly-translated work by an author who featured in 2014’s event.

Diego Marani’s The Interpreter (original Italian L’interprete, Milan, 2004, British Library YF.2004.a.24136) begins in Geneva at the United Nations where an interpreter has developed a strange malady and starts speaking gibberish while claiming he has discovered the primordial language of mankind. Before he can be sacked he disappears, then his boss develops the same illness and goes to a sanatorium in Munich for a language cure. While at the sanatorium he decides his only chance of being cured is to find the missing interpreter and find out about the mysterious illness which has taken over his life. There now begins a journey through Europe which takes him as far as the Crimea. This is no travelogue but an exploration of cultural diversity, language, identity and crime.

It is a very entertaining novel with a lot of humour but also dark and frightening. It shows how easily all the certainties of life can disappear and how an individual can be left defenceless to the buffetings of external forces beyond his control. The narrator in the novel loses everything but the power of the human spirit keeps him alive and he fights back. For him life is an obstacle race where the obstacles can change from day to day, and where you must adapt to survive.
As with Marani’s earlier novels, New Finnish Grammar and The Last of the Vostyachs, the importance of language and identity are at the heart of the novel:
Languages are like toothbrushes: the only one you should put in your mouth is your own. It’s a question of hygiene… it’s dangerous to let yourself be contaminated by the germs of another tongue.
It is your language and your culture which give you your identity and make you what you are. When times get tough it is a bulwark against chaos and adversity. Your language and culture help you belong in society and connect you to both the past and the future. Whatever journeys we undertake, we take with us our language and culture and we do not lose them however much our life changes. We can learn new languages and immerse ourselves in new cultures, but we still retain the language and culture which surrounded us in our formative years and in which we were educated. This is why exile is so painful for most adults. Indeed, people who have left their homes for work in foreign countries remain truer to the traditions that they grew up with than people who remain behind in a changing society. For the exile, a country can’t change as it exists only in his mind, frozen in aspic, and it is to this country of the mind that he wants to return. Indeed, as many returning immigrants discover, the country they left behind no longer exists and they can’t readjust to the country which has taken its place.
The themes of the novel are carefully embedded in a thriller plot and do not interfere with a cracking yarn rich in event and the unexpected. Diego Marani shows that he is at home with the detective story, so it is not a surprise that he has gone on to write detective fiction with God’s Dog. The issues raised in The Interpreter are answered, but what the narrator has learnt does not seem worth the price that he has paid and will continue to pay.

Diego Marani will be in the UK from 31 January to 4 February and will be giving readings in London, Bath and Oxford. For details, see the European Literature Network’s website. 

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Timothy Lane’s Translation Blog: A Dutiful Son by Pascal Bruckner

The following passage is the opening paragraph of A Dutiful Son:
“It’s bedtime. Kneeling at the foot of my bed, head bowed, hands together, I murmur my prayer in a low voice. I’m ten. After a brief review of the day’s sins, I make a request of God, our all-powerful Creator. He knows how regularly I attend mass, how fervently I receive communion, how I love Him above all else. I simply ask Him, implore Him, to bring about the death of my father, while driving if possible. Brakes failing while he’s going downhill, black ice, a plane tree, whatever suits Him best.”
As opening passages go, this is one I certainly won’t forget in a hurry. After all, one immediately asks, what sort of son could feel such a way, and what sort of father could warrant such a prayer? He goes on to describe being beaten by an abusive bullying father, the sense of humiliation he feels in prostrating himself before his tormentor and the poisonous feelings of resentment he felt. But Pascal Bruckner does not give us this picture of violence as the prologue to feelings of victimhood, for he ends his prologue with a note of remarkable, but characteristic resilience:
“Brutal fathers have one advantage: they don’t lull you with their gentleness, their sentimentality, they don’t try to play at being big brothers or mates. They wake you up like an electric shock, make you someone who’s eternally fighting or eternally oppressed. What mine passed on to me was his fury and for that I’m grateful. The hatred he instilled in me also saved me. I sent it back at him like a boomerang.”
Some years ago I read the manuscript of My Little Husband for the first time, the first of Pascal Bruckner’s books to be published by Dedalus. As a creature of the internet age curious to learn more about the writer I was to read I naturally looked up online any biographical information I could find on Mr Bruckner. A number of patterns emerged: a certain imaginative flamboyance, criticism of multiculturalism from a leftwing standpoint, and most curious of all, a question as to whether the author was Jewish or not. There is a lot of anonymous venom to be found on the internet, lazy stereotyping of character traits by ethnicity, and of course people claiming that every significant person who ever lived belonged to their own group; so I was curious whether Mr Bruckner was seen as Jewish because he met certain traits associated with secular Jew; intellectualism, satire, liberalism, a ‘jewish sounding’ surname, views on Israel, etc.
The reality is far more interesting. Mr Bruckner’s paternal ancestry is not Jewish but Franco-German, in fact he describes it as the embodiment of the two nations relations, each new generation choosing one camp or the other. His great-grandfather was unenthusiastic towards Germany, viewing the language as something lumbering and ugly, his Grandfather, despite being a great Germanophile served four years in the Belgian Royal Army during World War One, while Pascal Bruckner’s own father went of his own free-will to be a factory worker for Siemens, part of the Nazi war effort.
And the ‘Jewish Question’ seems to have preoccupied Mr Bruckner Senior. The third chapter is entitled ‘The Semitic Poison’. Bruckner begins this chapter with a memory of a holiday in Austria, when a man staring at the young Pascal abruptly informed him that he knew he was a Jew. After telling his parents of this episode, his irate father ran after the man, with his son in tow and proceeded to explain to the stranger that his son was a pure Aryan, and certain traits of his physiognomy were mostly certainly not Jewish.
He emphasises that a settled dislike of Jews was typical in his parent’s generation, but that in his father it had become a zealous malice that pervaded his whole life. He describes his father reading Jewish authors in order to find additional ammunition for his anti-semitism, reading editorials by prominent figures who disputed the existence of gas chambers, and that the family library had its share of eugenicist literature.
On one occasion he describes challenging a rant of his father’s, asking him why he hated people who had never personally harmed him. His father is so angry that he initially stammers out his response:
“They’ve corrupted everything, defiled everything, trampled everything underfoot. They want to rule the world, they scoff at our most sacred values. The only Jews I like are those who are ashamed of being what they are…. Moreover they’re racists, they don’t want to mix. I don’t like their irony, they don’t respect anything.”
In recollecting this justification Mr Bruckner comments on how weak the explanation is, and passes a judgement that puts one in mind of Iago’s entirely irrational undying malice: “Animosity is based on ignorance of the original grievance”.
With the exception of Phillipe Petain, the hero of Verdun turned Vichy Chief of State, a great number of the figures he mentions whom his father admired were completely unknown to me. What these many names did bring home to me is how little in the English speaking world we understand the trauma and humiliation of France’s defeat. Mr Bruckner makes it clear how much of his father’s anti-semitism and Germanophilia was born out of awe for the power that had beaten France, a bullying underlings reverence for his master, and the bitter resentment of watching that master defeated.
There is much to read about in these memoirs beside the Vichy legacy and anti-semitism, such as the great liberation Pascal Bruckner felt being a young man in a multi-racial Paris listening to African American influence Jazz and Rock and Roll music. But what interested me most on my first and second reading was the intensity and passion of his father’s racial hatred, something like a mania, a religious cult, or a parasite, that once it takes hold of the mind incinerates everything that is not itself and turn everything to its own end. This contrast between the father’s hatred and the son’s tolerance made me wonder how much genuine mature tolerance depends not upon principle and book learning, but seeing and learning from the toxic ravages to one’s character and intellect that life consuming hatred can work.

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